Midtown’s Maven: JLL’s Deborah van der Heyden on Manhattan’s tech bubble, then and now


Excuse Deborah van der Heyden if she’s feeling a little déjà vu.

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Getting started in New York real estate as a young professional in the late 1980s, she dealt with a number of software companies, identifying with not only their willingness to try new things, but also with the fact that most of the people who worked in the companies were close to her age.

Now, the rumblings around the office from younger team members are about new media and social media companies, causing Ms. van der Heyden, now a managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle, to have some bad flashbacks.

“Oh, god no, not start-ups again,” she said with a laugh.

van der heyden for web Midtowns Maven: JLLs Deborah van der Heyden on Manhattan’s tech bubble, then and now
Deborah van der Heyden

Ms. van der Heyden, 46, who cut her teeth at Newmark Knight Frank, recalled working with a handful of companies that no longer exist and her reluctance after that time to step back into that sector.

“I have conversations with them, and they say to me, ‘Well, it could be the next Google,’ and I say back, ‘Well, it could be bust,’” Ms. van der Heyden said. “But this last year has really changed my perspective, and even as an old dog you can learn new tricks.”

Having a variety of tricks has long been Ms. van der Heyden’s calling card. As a member of the firm’s strategic occupancy services practice, she’s dealt with a number of office space projects throughout the U.S., Canada and in some European cities. She has negotiated retail leases in New York, acted as a bankruptcy adviser, and leased warehouse and distribution faculties. Ms. van der Heyden has even completed reuse studies for obsolete energy sites in Queens, Philadelphia and a number of other sites on the East Coast.

While Ms. van der Heyden has had plenty of experience working with large companies, it’s still those individual relationships she’s forged working on deals that are most fulfilling to her.

One of Ms. van der Heyden’s favorite projects was working with popular Midtown Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit and owner Hakan Swahn on the move from the old Rockefeller Townhouses to a different location on East 55th Street in 2005.

“The old location was so special to them and was extremely well-recognized for its features,” said Ms. van der Heyden, referencing the large ceilings and waterfall that the restaurant became known for, in addition to its food.

“Still, we couldn’t make a deal to stay in that location. A restaurant couldn’t be successful there with the numbers the landlord was looking for,” she said.

After months of deliberation and thought, Mr. Swahn made the decision to move the restaurant, something driven by necessity, but not his heart, Ms. van der Heyden said.

Ms. van der Heyden sat down with Mr. Swahn a few years later at the bar in the new location, and he told her that it was best business decision he had ever made in his life, she said.

“That was so fulfilling to hear that because this was a move that was so tied to his heart and the history of his restaurant. To know it worked out was great,” said Ms. van der Heyden, who still keeps in touch with Mr. Swahn, although, because she is allergic to shellfish, doesn’t eat at the restaurant as much as she’d like.

Through all the different projects she’s worked on, Ms. van der Heyden still finds challenges in the day-to-day experiences she has.
“In real estate, there’s no handbook; it’s a very intuitive business,” she said. “Real estate is a big mass of challenges; it’s life sustaining that you can always learn something new.”

It was the drive to continue to learn new things that led her into real estate in the first place. As a journalism student at Boston University, she wrote a number of articles about real estate, including one about how gentrification and redevelopment was changing South Boston.

After thoughts of going to law school to become an IP attorney and a stint working in advertising, Ms. van der Heyden caught the bug of working in real estate and hasn’t looked back since.

“There’s always a new twist, always something different, and always something to learn,” Ms. van der Heyden said.

She remains interested not only in what demographics look like now, but also in what things will look like down the road. She’s currently reading Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau, a book that discusses what will be the next stage of human evolution, and what role technology will play in that.

“I find it very applicable to real estate, but I find many people aren’t so familiar with it,” she said.

But while she’s always looking to new ideas to change her way of thinking, she can’t seem to wrap her head around the idea that home-based employment and telecommuting will ever reduce the demand for real estate.

“There’s an increasing need to be with other humans, that’s a quality that you just can’t understand,” Ms. van der Heyden said. “You look at these new media companies, they want to work in very condensed environments.”

“There’s an element in real estate in getting people together, the expression is all under the same roof,” she said. “I don’t think you can just send everyone home—you need those common links and bonds.”

Finding that proper bond is what led her to Jones Lang LaSalle three years ago, seeking a bigger platform where she could get the added depth to serve all types of clients.

“This is the big public company I’d never thought I’d work with,” Ms. van der Heyden said. “Everyone here understands how things work, and there’s always room for improvement.”

The one area Ms. van der Heyden hopes to improve on this year, as she further juggles the influx of technology companies, working on a deal for a signature restaurateur in New York and bringing in more corporate accounts?

“There’s still things I can’t figure out on my BlackBerry, and I just give it to my 15-year-old son and say, ‘I don’t want to figure out how to fix this,’” Ms. van der Heyden said. “I’d like to be able to do that,” she said with a laugh.

Maybe you can teach old dogs new tricks.